I’ve visited a lot of comic shops, I’ve attended or worked a lot of book conventions, and I’ve talked with a lot of fans. I guess for the ease of discussion we can place them into two groups: collectors and readers.
On one extreme end of the spectrum I remember chatting with a young man who only collected CGC books and never read anything. He like the way that the books looked in the pristine plastic cases, he liked the history behind books, he liked grading books, and he liked building and selling a collection, but he had no interest in reading the original stories (he felt them hokey). On the other extreme end of the spectrum are people who only read books and could care less that comics have a collectability and value on the secondary market. They want to consume stories and they never go back and re-read anything because there are too many new stories that they haven’t read yet.
Now most of us fall somewhere in-between these two extremes, and this means that comic books are both a hobby and entertainment. Last week, Scott wrote about the high cost of comic books. This is a sentiment that is seeing a lot of discussion right now. From a hobby point of view comic books aren’t really that expensive. There is a very low entry cost into collecting, but if you are trying to get 9.8s of Marvel keys you’ll find your hobby gets pretty pricey. In this way comic book collecting really is no more expensive than collecting stamps or coins or Pez dispensers. So from a hobby point of view is $4 per book a lot to grow your collection? Not really. But from an entertainment dollar point of view comic books are very expensive.
Sales of new comic book issues have been decreasing (in terms of units sold) and we’ve talked a lot on this website about how partially that is because the larger publishers have been selling to an aging collector demographic. Arguably, if you want to grow readership you are going to bring people to the hobby because of good stories, and not because they hope to amass a large collection worth money. However, there is fierce competition for this new reader, not only among the companies themselves but also from other types of entertainment.
After paying the bills, buying groceries, and saving a little for a rainy day most people don’t have a lot left over. So more and more everyone is being pretty choosy about how they spend their mad money. Even if you are an energetic youth without the worry of a mortgage you still are going to be picky deciding what to spend your allowance on. Comic books aren’t competing against themselves; they are competing against movies, video games, TV shows, and any other manner of shiny objects.
I do think that breaking down a per hour value is useful, but I also think that Scott reads faster than most people. I’d peg reading one of today’s comic books at about 15 minutes. So that works out to about $16 per hour. Let’s look at some other forms of entertainment (I’ve used some averages for price and time below):
Video games: $60 cost/20 hr = $3 per hour
TV Series (DVD set) $50 cost/10 hr = $5 per hour
Movies = $14 cost/2 hr = $7 per hour
Novel = $10 cost/10 hours = $1 per hour
Looking at comic books as a hobby it isn’t really fair to compare their cost to watching TV (not many people would say that TV is their hobby) but if we approach from the point of view that consumers have finite resources it does raise concerns. If I only have $20 each week to spend on fun then what am I going to choose? Most likely I’ll try to get the most bang for my buck. From this point of view video games seem like a steal compared to comic books.
I’m not saying that people should do the above activities instead of reading comic books, but I do think that the industry needs to face the reality that compared to other forms of entertainment the cost seems high. The competition between comic books and other forms of entertainment is even seen at conventions. Comic books are becoming smaller and smaller parts of large entertainment events. They now share space with TV shows and movies and video games and novels. There is a direct and constant reminder at every convention about the competition facing comics. So the industry needs to either 1) decrease the cost of books, or 2) increase the perceived value by the customer. Both are easier said than done.
If you reduced the books to a dollar would they sell 5 times as much? Possible, but unlikely, because the cost of an item isn’t the only thing preventing sales. The collector aspect of the hobby might be able to increase perceived value, but only in the sense that one day my All New Marvel Now Fantastic Four #1 will be worth more money than I paid for it. And it would take a very specific and most likely cataclysmic set of events to occur for that version of FF 1 to be worth the same amount as the original 1961 version.
If the cost doesn’t come down, comic books need to be must read items. They are a perfect storytelling medium and conceptually there is nothing preventing the latest Spider-Man issue from being water cooler talk, but we aren’t there yet. And until comics become a go-to form of entertainment they will always be in danger of losing cash-strapped fans to the myriad of other ways we spend our leisure time.